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3081077049_552ca2585e_m1Every fiction writer desires to come up with a good solid plot for their work. Plot is what makes stories alluring and riveting. Concepts can be simple and linear or outlandish and bizarre, full of complexity and depth. Sometimes as a reader, you come across a book and think, I wish I’d thought of that. Don’t focus on what you didn’t write, focus on the ideas out there ready to be discovered. Where can you find great plot ideas? All around you. Here are some of the best spots for inspiration.

The News ~ Ripped from the headlines. They do it on Law & Order. Sometimes life truly is stranger than fiction. Be there when it happens. Read or watch the news with your creative ears perked and pen in hand. I do. I’m always looking for interesting facts. Sometimes a little tidbit, an event, a crazy thing someone did or a fascinating person gets my attention. All of a sudden my mind starts cranking out ideas. Create a bookmark folder for articles you find while net surfing or keep a notebook handy so you can jot down those things that enthrall you.

Little Ideas ~ Little ideas may not be big enough for a novel-length story, but they can be used to add depth to a bigger plot or bond together to make a big plot. Write down all your random thoughts and ideas. Mismatched ideas are great. Like a box of fabric scraps, left in the box, that’s all they are, but when put together with other scraps, they can form something of artistic substance. Little ideas can become big ideas with some tweaking.

Dreams ~ Plots are calling you from that place where reality meets fantasy, where symbolism emerges on a grand scale, where things may or may not make sense. For Kings & Queens I had this idea for a love triangle but no plot to wrap around it. Then one night I had this dream I was running, for exercise not out of fear, and I overheard these guys planning a church massacre. They chased me to this little town. In that dream, I found the seed for my plot and my setting. Stephenie Meyer found her plot and characters for Twilight in a dream. The odd realm that finds us in our own minds during sleep is one of the greatest springboards for inspiration. So when you dream, use the most wondrous and weird elements as a starting point. That’s all I had was a tiny dream-birthed seed, one idea, and the more I worked on my book, the larger the concept became, taking my storyline to unexpected, wonderful, horrific heights.

Characters ~ You can find plot by delving into the motivation and goals of your characters. Once you have a solid character, pick his or her brain. Get close and personal. When you find out what they truly want, invent obstacles so they can’t readily reach their goals. This establishes your story question and creates conflict, which makes for a gripping read. Will he find his long lost love? Will she get that one day of peace she craves? Will they be able to mend their splintered marriage? Good, well-developed characters drive stories and come with ideas of their own.

Books ~ When you finish a novel you particularly enjoyed, dissect what made it most compelling. Was it the concept, the tension, the twist at the end? The way the author was meticulous on the details? Once you pinpoint what you loved about it, brainstorm your own ideas, characters, concepts, etc. Blend the fascinating and sound techniques of several books and fashion your own great idea. I liked the twist at the end of John Grisham’s The Partner. I didn’t write anything close to a legal thriller, but I had that kind of twisty end in mine when I penned Kings & Queens. Borrow and blend.

Villains ~ Sometimes the evil spark comes first. Let’s say your own Hannibal Lecter is firmly established. Fascinating. Grotesque. Cool. Hot with the ladies. PETA spokesman. Serial killer with peppermint breath. What’s his motivation? Find out what he wants and create a protag to contrast that. Who will get in his way, challenge him, tickle his imagination, piss him off, turn him on? Your plot can be found in him.

Technology ~ Projections for medical and scientific breakthroughs can open up a bunch of what-if questions and plot possibilities. Asking questions is an awesome way to spawn ideas and crank out a plot. So research some geeky stuff with your pen in hand.

Story concepts are all around you, in every nook and cranny of life. Look for and find the things that fascinate you and write about them in only the way you can. Then readers will be saying, I wish I’d thought of that.

~ CV

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Please welcome
January’s Guest Blogger,
Chris Delyani.

SHARED THOUGHTS:

On these cold January nights, on the fifteen-minute walk from the train station to my house after work, I like to let my mind wander, shedding the stresses of the day. On good days I might think about a party I’d been to or a trip I’m planning to take; on bad days I might wonder about the economy or the mountain of laundry bursting out of my hamper. And then there are the days—good days, bad days, it doesn’t matter which—when I think about the opening sentences of my favorite novels.

Some nights I like to ponder the opening line of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” in which Austen introduces her heroine from a distance: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had managed to live twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” I’ve always loved that word “seemed.” Emma Woodhouse doesn’t unite the best blessings of existence, she only seems to unite the best blessings of existence; and the distance Austen immediately sets up between us and Emma helps us see Emma’s faults more clearly as her story unfolds.

If I’m waiting for the light to change and have extra time to kill, I might compare the opening of “Emma” with the opening of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Here I feel I’ve been dropped into the story, so close to the narrative I can only guess who’s speaking. The “that day” at the end of Brontë’s sentence, like the “seemed” in Austen’s sentence, is one of those clues I began to understand only after repeating it aloud to myself. Brontë could have written “there was no possibility of taking a walk” without harming the sentence’s grammar, but the “that day” lets me know the action Jane Eyre is describing has long past, on the exact day—almost the exact minute—her story begins. I liked “that day” so much that I wound up borrowing (okay, stealing) the phrase for the opening sentence of my own novel.

But my favorite first sentence to mull over on my walk from work, a first sentence that seems to beg to be mulled over (and over and over), comes from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Nine words, fourteen syllables—no sentence could be simpler in syntax and yet so complex in meaning.

As I walk past bus stops and Korean restaurants and the pink-painted candy store on my way home, I like to break apart Woolf’s sentence in my mind—it’s not hard, after all, since it’s only the nine words—and think of the ways Woolf could have written that sentence, but didn’t. (I could go on about the choice of character name for Mrs. Dalloway, patrician and poetic with its liquid double-“l” in the middle, but I’ll leave the fun of naming character names for another blog.)

For starters, Woolf could have introduced us to her main character in any number of ways:

“Clarissa Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

“Clarissa said she would buy the flowers herself.”

“She said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Or Woolf could have changed the sentence from indirect to direct dialogue:

“Mrs. Dalloway said, ‘I’ll buy the flowers myself.’”

Woolf could even have inverted the subject and the object:

“‘I’ll buy the flowers myself,’ Mrs. Dalloway said.”

Or she could have been more specific about the flowers:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the roses herself.”

Or, finally, Woolf could have omitted the sentence’s last word:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers.”

But for me, taking out the “herself” is the worst thing I can do to that opener. I love how “herself” draws the stress away from “buy the flowers” and deepens a story that has scarcely begun. Already, I’m asking myself: who is this Mrs. Dalloway, and if she doesn’t buy the flowers herself, who would buy them? Why do the flowers have to be bought in the first place? Even the “the” in front of “flowers” takes on a special meaning: they aren’t just any flowers, they are “the” flowers, flowers, apparently, that somebody has to buy. I know I’m in the hands of a great writer when even the pronouns and the definite articles draw me in.

Of course, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” is etched so indelibly into our common literary psyche that it’s hard to imagine life without it.

Not far from me is a bookstore called Mrs. Dalloway’s, with the first sentence stenciled into the wall above the bookshelves; I can’t imagine any of my rewrites achieving such iconic fame. For to change the opening sentence of Mrs. Dalloway by even a single word, I think, would have given us a different novel than the one Virginia Woolf gave us.

So if you’re staring in front of a cold, blank computer screen, having trouble coming up with that right first sentence, don’t worry—it probably won’t come to you until after your gazillionth draft, after your characters have sunk into your skin. That’s how I comfort myself, anyway, when I struggle with my own fiction on these dark January nights.

Have a favorite first sentence you like to chew over? Share it here or email me about it at cdelyani@gmail.com.

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ABOUT CHRIS:

Chris Delyani published his first novel, “The Love Thing,” in July 2009, and is feverishly working on a second. He lives in Oakland, California, with his husband Dan and his cat McGee. You can visit his website at http://www.chrisdelyani.com.

SYNOPSIS for The Love Thing:

Twenty-two-year old Greg DeAngelis moves to San Francisco from New York to escape his overbearing father, who’s pressuring him to go to law school, and his ex-boyfriend Matthew, who dumps him for an older, richer man. To make desperately needed money Greg temps at a law firm, where he blunders into the role of the firm’s official birthday cake maker, despite his utter lack of culinary skill. A lot of guys vie for the hero’s attention as he navigates the rough waters of office politics and single life in San Francisco, but only one of them can give him “the love thing.” Can he figure out which one, before it’s too late? This comic novel is about the importance of love and friendship, and of knowing who your true friends really are.

TRAILER for The Love Thing:


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Thanks, Chris, for some great food for thought and for illuminating the importance of first sentences.

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When writing any story, it’s important to have a good sense of character makeup before you tear into the first draft. Yes, characters tend to evolve and even surprise you as you go along, but the deeper you know your characters at the onset, the easier it will be to show them as they are rather than tell things about them in the narrative.

With a fully grounded sense of your characters, you can just jump into your story and take off.

Here is a list of surface questions you can ask your characters.

1216748414FLESH:
Full Name
Age/D.O.B.
Locale
Race, Ethnicity, Nationality
Stature
Weight/Body Build
Hair
Eyes
Consistent Props
Vices
Nervous Habits
Distinguishing Marks
Physical Traits
Overall health
Scent
Voice
Appearance
Property, wardrobe, vehicle

MIND:
Occupation
Obligations
Socioeconomic Class
Education
Intelligence Level
World Views or Religious Beliefs
Convictions
Sexual Orientation/Values
Background Info
Main Desires/Goals
Minor Desires/Goals
Typical Day

SPIRIT:
General Disposition
Personality/Temperament
Optimistic/Pessimistic?
Real/Feigned?
Morality Level
Confidence Level
Trust Level
Quirks/Idiosyncrasies
Habits
Strengths
Weaknesses
Hobbies and Interests
Recreational Activities
Likes
Dislikes
Greatest Obstacle
Greatest Fear
Motivations/Driving Force
Talents

BEYOND:
Significant Other/Relationship/Marital Status
Love interest?
Lives with?
Fights with?
Spends time with?
Wishes to spend time with?
Family members/relationships, ages, occupations, conflicts
Best Friend
Other Close Friends
Acquaintances
How does he/she view his family, friends, boss/co-workers, employees?
How is he or she seen by others?
By Society?

Even if you never put most of these elements into the narrative or reveal them in dialogue, keeping them in mind when you’re writing will help your characters come alive for both you and your readers.

And here is a list of prompts to keep on hand when you want to delve deeper into psychological conditions or thought processes. When using First Person, you especially need a vibrant, gripping voice. Very important! Even a bland story with a quirky, funny, outrageous voice can carry readers far. Springing off a prompt or two is also a good exercise to do when you want to get in touch with that voice.

I don’t remember…
I remember…
I’ve always…
I believe…
I dreamt…
I see…
I try not to…
I don’t see…
I’ve never…
I know…
I don’t know…
I don’t want to…
I want to…
I wonder…
I try to…
I hate…
I love…
I can’t…
I cry…
I laugh…
So, there I was…
This summer…
This Christmas…
Last summer…
Today is…
You’ll never guess…
You’ll never believe…
If I could…
Someday I’ll…
When I was a child…
My earliest memory…
My worst nightmare…
My deepest regret…
My biggest fear…
My heart breaks…
My heart skips a beat…
My spirit soars…
The last time I tried…
I can’t stand…
I get chills when…
Tomorrow promises…
It kills me when…
Did you know…
When she/he…
Suddenly, my…
I’m haunted by…
My death…
I lied.
I’ve killed before.
What’s sin for you is mere survival for me.
Don’t judge me until you…
Bet ya never thought…
The world…
The darkness…
My home is…
I ran away…
I can’t take…
My future…
I’m dying…
My life changed forever…
I can never go back to…
I can’t escape…
I’m breathless…
I hunger for…
I can’t live without…
If I could just go back in time, I’d…
I can never die…
Immortality is…
Last night…
For the first time in my life, I…
How could you…
Please don’t…

Even if your work is more plot-driven, always delve deeper and find out the darkest, coolest, most fascinating aspects of your characters and make sure all that comes to the surface in your work. That’s what will make your work stand out and your characters unforgettable.

So get to know those babies of yours and make them leap off the page.

~CV

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Thanks for stopping by at our blog. We wanted to lend voice to a collaboration of writers who are at different stages in their careers, from published down to those penning or editing their first novels. So wherever you’re at in your writing, here’s a place to stop and refuel, find information and get retrofitted with new ideas.

Be passionate. Be bold. Pick up a pen. Find your journey in ink.

Write us at inkiesrus@yahoo.com

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